DONEGAL exposed Armagh’s limitations in ruthless fashion last year but new assistant-manager Kieran Donaghy is adamant that there’s “another gear” in the Orchardmen this summer.
Armagh’s players get the chance to prove him right on Sunday when they host Antrim at the Athletic Grounds in a repeat of their county’s first-ever Ulster Championship match which Armagh won at Blaris in 1890. 131 years later, an Armagh outfit that lost just once in Division One faces a determined challenge from an Antrim team that won four out of four in their Division Four promotion campaign.
“The way we went out of the Championship last year against Donegal, certainly we’d tell you there’s another gear and there has to be another gear,” said Donaghy.
“The boys have their chance on Sunday to go out there and put in a performance and that’s the way it has to be.
“Antrim are coming with such confidence, they haven’t lost a game this year and are moving forward. They’ve won all types of tight games, they’ve won games that have been difficult and they’ve figured out ways to come back and win. Winning is a habit so they’re a very dangerous obstacle and one that we have to be playing at our best and delivering on the stuff we are working on on the training field.
“That’s the focus of this group now. If you do that it gives you opportunities to possibly do better than what we’ve done in the past.”
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney went four seasons without a win in the Ulster Championship until the barren run ended with a 2019 quarter-final success against Down. The Orchardmen beat Derry at the same stage last year but then came a cropper against Donegal and lost by 12 points.
Donaghy says there is a determination in the Armagh dressingroom to make a long-awaited breakthrough in Ulster this year.
“Absolutely it’s a big goal for us to deliver in the Championship,” he said.
“It is a focus point that we do perform and for this group it’s all about performing in the Ulster Championship now with their League status secured.”
Coming from a county were football is a religion, it’s a surprise that Donaghy rates the mentality in McGeeney panel as superior to that in Kerry and he attributes that to the work of McGeeney.
“The mentality is probably better because of the culture that Kieran has developed over the last six years,” he said.
“They are a fantastic group with the time they put into it, how professional they are, the leadership group on the players’ side and the message they constantly drive… It has been a huge learning curve for me to see how much work Kieran has done over the last number of years, it is starting to hit home with the players and they are really driving it on.
“It is a player-led culture. Whereas in Kerry what has gone before will carry a certain amount of weight, these players are really trying to forge their own story and their own history. They’ve climbed through the divisions and managed to stay up in a very tight group this year.
“They were probably at a low ebb when Kieran took over. I think the culture they have and how serious the players take it and how they prepare for sessions and how they prepare for games, how intelligent they are – you can see the work Kieran and the other managements have done.
“They’re at the stage now were they’re in the top eight teams in the country and trying to improve. That’s a good place to be.”